Lost in music

6 November 2008

It’s quite easy to fall in love with Laura Nyro; she sings beautifully, she plays the piano beautifully, and she used to arrive at Colombia studios, in New York, via horse-drawn carriage, dressed in eveningwear. And New York Tendaberry is the kind of album you’d expect from someone who used to arrive at their recording studio via horse-drawn carriage, dressed in eveningwear. It’s a contest between quiet and loud (or “shadows and light” as David Fricke writes in the liner notes), whispers and shouts, empty silences and moments crammed with as much orchestral noising as possible.

The opening track, ‘You Don’t Love Me When I Cry’, begins with quiet mumblings and ends with loud mutterings. In between, sounds (harps, basses, electric organs) drift in and out, never staying for more than a few seconds, and Nyro’s voice and piano follow one another up and down, swooping and soaring all over the place, as she repeatedly avows “I will go / I will stay / In the hours of my crying day”. The effect is breathtaking; you forget Carole King, you forget Joni Mitchell, and you wait mesmerised to see what’s next. Strangely enough, the next track (‘Captain for Dark Mornings’) has, before it wanders off, a piano intro that could easily have come off Carole King’s Tapestry or Joni Mitchell’s Blue, even though New York Tendaberry was released in 1969, two years before both of these albums.

The comparisons are helpful nevertheless: Nyro and Joni both have a jazz-inspired habit of causing havoc to syllables (like Billie Holiday), but Nyro’s voice is capable of vastly more in emotional and musical range and sounds. Musically, however, it is Carole King and Nyro that seem to have the most in common. Both have provided hit singles for similar artists at similar times. However, whereas Carole King went on to create her own album of recognizably ‘hit’ songs, Nyro took over a year to perfect this wonderfully strange and idiosyncratic album. The songs on Tapestry have been covered and re-covered, but the only song to be covered on New York… is the anthemic ‘Save the Country’ (it has tambourines!). In other words, Carole got the choons but Nyro’s got a mysterious, theatrical something that Carole King hasn’t.

This theatricality is apparent in the third track ‘Tom Cat Goodbye’, which starts as if it’s going to be as heart-wrenching as the first two tracks before turning into something straight out of Broadway, with bouncy piano-playing and incongruous lyrics about Frankie killing Johnny (the tom cat, presumably). Once again Nyro hammers away on her piano oblivious to the instruments that swing by for a few seconds before disappearing. This is probably due to her habit of asking her producer for colours as opposed to specific sounds, which at first made life a little tough for Roy Halee. Nor was he helped by Nyro’s tendency to play the piano at her own pace, speeding up and slowing down as she pleased; this habit, which makes the album feel so alive, reportedly made life hell for the session musicians when it came to overdubbing.

‘Mercy on Broadway’ continues the theatrical atmosphere (it has a gunshot!), and is decidedly pink, while the earliest recorded song on the album, ‘Time and Love’, even sounds a little Carole King. These louder, poppier songs, of which ‘Captain Saint Lucifer’ is the most joyful and weird, are expertly placed on the album between the ‘quieter’ songs, so that it’s almost impossible not to listen and be captivated. By the time the sparse ‘New York Tendaberry’ ends the album, I’m head over heels in love with New York, with Nyro, and with whatever the hell a ‘tendaberry’ is.